Asheville has a lot of nicknames – Foodtopia, Ashevegas, Sante Fe East. But “quirky” is the name it really earns. An easy two-hour drive from Charlotte (everyone has their favorite route, but the simplest is I-85 to U.S. 321 North to I-40), it’s close enough that you can spend a day or a weekend. And while the annual fall leaf season brings long lines, the less-crowded seasons have their charms: Dogwood and rhododendron blooms in spring, cooler air in summer and the excuse to stay inside during the wet and cold winter.
Where else can you schedule a foraging tour (No Taste Like Home)? Where else can you tour the Moog Music Factory? (Yes, this was the home of Moog inventor Bob Moog.) You can go to the Asheville Pinball Museum. You can play games at the new cafe Well Played, where they stock more than 500 board games.
You can get a cocktail with a view at the Sky Bar, wrapped around the top of the Flatiron Building, or on top of a brewery (Top of the Monk, above the Thirsty Monk Brewery) or get dinner with a view (weather permitting) at the Sunset Porch at the Grove Park Inn. And yes, there’s The Biltmore Estate. Save a whole day just for that.
For a small mountain city, it’s tough to narrow it down. Our picks for the best things to do:
1. Watch artists without starving: The River Arts District is a warehouse district along the French Broad River where industrial buildings have been converted into artists’ work spaces that are often open for watching the creating happen. When you work up an appetite, try The Wedge Brewing Co.’s two locations for beer and hard cider, the new location of 12 Bones Barbecue (yes, the Obamas’ favorite for ribs and sadly, it’s closed on weekends), White Duck Taco and The Bull and Beggar.
2. Explore beer: Claims that Asheville has more breweries per capita than any city in America may not be exaggerated. You’d need a month to do them all justice. Our suggestion, though, is a little out of the way at Highland Brewing Co. in East Asheville, less than 10 minutes from downtown. Retired founder Oscar Wong is considered the godfather of craft brewing here. It’s located on a hilltop with a deck, a rooftop space, an outdoor area called The Meadow and a lot more parking than you’ll find around downtown’s South Slope brewery district. Bonus: Asheville Distilling, maker of Troy & Sons whiskeys, is in the same building, so you can get a two-fer.
3. Spot the New York references: There’s Wall Street, Lexington Avenue, Broadway, Battery Park and even an eight-story version of the Flatiron Building, with a giant iron in front in case you miss the point. While some claim that Asheville’s cool mountain summers made it a refuge for New York-based financial firms in the days before air conditioning, local historian and tour guide Kevan Frazier dismisses that. Wall Street, he says, was actually named for the wall that holds up that section of downtown, not for the New York financial district. The big-city names were more about Asheville’s ambitions in the 1920s, when the city was prospering. “There’s a sense in the ‘20s in Asheville of really wanting to be a major player,” he says. The Depression brought the city’s growth to a halt and it was well into the 1980s before prosperity returned. That’s your luck today: With no money to tear down and rebuild, the city’s Gothic Revival architectural gems survived.
4. Shop for books: Malaprops is one of the best independent bookstores in the country, but it’s not the only stop for the print-obsessed. Battery Park Book Exchange (with a champagne bar) in Grove Arcade, Downtown Books and News on Lexington Avenue and The Captain’s Bookshelf are all worthy on a lazy afternoon. If your tastes are more graphic, comic book fans say Comic Envy is one of the best stores in the state.
5. Shop for edibles: The French Broad Co-op has been earnest, organic and cooperatively owned since 1975. If you want something more gourmet, head to the French Broad Chocolate Lounge for a tasting. And don’t miss the tailgate markets – small, very local farmers markets – that go on all over town. To find the schedule, pick up a free copy of the Local Food Guide produced by ASAP (Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project) or go to the website, www.asapconnections.org.
6. Shop for . . . everything else: Even if you keep your wallet in your pocket, Grove Arcade is worth a stroll just to admire the 1924 Art Deco building, home to shops, restaurants and an outdoor produce market. (Download a free tour in the history section at www.grovearcade.com.) A block away, Woolworth Walk is an old five-and-dime that has been converted into booths for local art and crafts (if you need a snack, hit the original soda fountain). Shoe fans should save time for Tops for Shoes, which covers several floors of an old department store.
7. Obsess over where to eat: Restaurant hopping is a sport here. Any restaurant list will be argued over, overturned and updated by the time you find a parking place. The dining scene changes faster than the weather in San Francisco. Let’s break it down this way:
Curate: Katie Button and Felix Meana’s small, Spanish-focused tapas restaurant has gotten a little bigger and even more Spanish-focused. A recent expansion added a vermuteria – vermouth is the rage in Barcelona these days – and a jamoneria for their aged Spanish hams. It’s still small, though, so if you can’t get in, head a block away to Button’s American small-plates restaurant, Nightbell.
The Market Place: Chef William Dissen focuses on all the Appalachian-inspired, locally produced ingredients that every other restaurant in Asheville reveres, but he does it with a touch of elegance.
Rhubarb: Chef John Fleer was the only Carolinas finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southeast this year (the medal went to Steven Satterfield at Miller Union in Atlanta). So yes, he attracts attention. He mixes Southern ingredients with global inspiration, like kimchi collards. On Sunday nights, it switches to a more down-home, three-course Sunday supper.
Buxton Hall: Chef Elliott Moss found a following with his imaginative food at the Admiral in West Asheville. Today, he’s doing wood-fired barbecue in an old roller rink with big windows and a passionate following. The barbecue is great, but what we really love are the fried chicken and the smoked/fried catfish sandwich. Save room for dessert – it’s usually Southern-inspired and irresistible.
Chai Pani: With so much Southern and Appalachian on other menus, the Indian street food here is like a blast of fresh air – highly flavored and very fragrant air. Unexpected: A solid cocktail list.
Nine Mile: Cue the reggae and rasta vibe. When you need to get away from the tourist areas and tuck into something tasty and affordable (or you need to feed college students from nearby UNC Asheville), this is a good place to settle in for lunch. The specials board always has something vegetarian, something that isn’t and something for kids.
3 things you don’t need to do
Complaining about Asheville’s trendiness is the newest trend. Where tourists go, cynicism will follow. Our pick for things you don’t have to do:
1. The drum circle in Pritchard Park. Yes, it’s bohemian and cool, and it will take you back to your days of wishing you had been at Woodstock. For about 5 minutes. And then you’ve heard it, and you’ll continue to hear it – and hear it – every time you cross downtown.
2. Wait in line at Tupelo Honey. Now that Tupelo has branched out to seven states, it’s not the only place to get fried green tomatoes with your grits. Yes, Tupelo’s original location is good, but it’s always crowded. If you’re going to wait in line for brunch, can we interest you in Early Girl Eatery, Sunny Point Cafe or Biscuit Head?
3. Visit the Mast General Store. It has the same tweedy sweaters and hiking boots you love at the Mast locations in seven other towns. For the best Mast experience, go to the original, in Valle Crucis.
Asheville is one of many day and weekend trips Charlotteans can take without a lot of planning. Check out our tips on Knoxville next.